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17 Dec 2002 : Column 779—continued

8.46 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Given the number of Members who wish to speak, I shall try to keep my remarks brief. I do not necessarily share the views of the

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hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) about counties, but during consideration of the Bill some clarification of the new relationships will be necessary.

I start from the premise that the current planning system is unfair, inaccessible and unpredictable. I do not mind the idea of dynamiting the system, because people are genuinely distressed by it and feel that it needs radical change. The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 was undoubtedly radical and pushed things forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) made it clear that it put in place the community basis of individual demand. It was right to do so at that time, and we need to reinforce that principle. The regional level makes increasing sense to people, and I see no reason why we should not enforce that through the planning system.

I want to devote my remarks to the rural dimension. As chairman of the Labour rural group of MPs—I followed my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley)—I know that we must recognise the importance of the rural dimension. We must face up to the fact that there is a crisis in housing provision in rural areas. We must do something about it and learn how to move matters forward quickly. With that in mind, the rural group held a recent seminar at which virtually all the main players in the delivery of rural housing were present, including the Countryside Alliance. Those present were able to display the degree of consensus that exists. They emphasised the importance of planning to the system; along with transport, planning is undoubtedly the major issue in terms of changing rural life for the better. The belief was expressed that parish and town councils have an important part to play, that there is a need to streamline the decision-making process, that we must get more low-cost housing into our villages and market towns, and that we need to recognise the interrelationship of urban and rural areas. However, the difference is that planning in rural areas requires greater sensitivity and a recognition of the scale of the changes. It was also noted that there is much good practice, but that, unfortunately, a lot of it is not being disseminated throughout the system, so something must be done to improve matters. It is in those terms that I shall consider this Bill: does it move forward the rural debate, and, if so, how will that be achieved?

Urban and rural areas have much in common. Pleasingly, we have a rural agenda, but we need to consider how to bring about brownfield development and the delivery of sequential tests in rural Britain, just as they must be delivered in urban Britain. In the time remaining, I shall briefly consider the Bill's provisions and how they can be delivered in the rural domain.

I start with the debate about counties and regions. I may not come to bury counties, but I certainly do not come to revive them. There is much to be said for unitary government, which makes sense if we are to form regional assemblies in due course. We already have the economic drive of the RDAs, and that must be enforced through the planning system. We should be honest and open and say that it makes a lot of sense to assimilate policies on minerals and waste to the regional dimension.

Peter Bradley: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the things that attracted people to vote for the establishment of unitary authorities, such as the Telford

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and Wrekin authority in my constituency, was the fact that such authorities would be closer to the community and more responsive in their decision-making processes? By the same token, people felt that shire hall was far too remote from their interests.

Mr. Drew: That is the point. We are trying to keep in place archaic institutions that bear little resemblance to what people want in local democracy. Structure plans are a thing of the past. The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench, and he will know that we in Gloucestershire have not had much success with structure plans. The last one had to be rewritten by the inspector because what it proposed was so bad. That is our experience locally, and other areas may have gone through something similar.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to my constituency neighbour for giving way. Does he think that the people of Stroud will consider the planning process more or less democratic, given that under the Bill a regional body in Bristol, Taunton or Exeter will determine the regional spatial strategy? That will inform what has to be put into the local development framework plan prepared by his local authority.

Mr. Drew: I was going to say that I believe that we must make the process more democratic. I am interested not in a top-down process, but in a bottom-up one. There will be evolution, but it must allow public participation. As I shall make clear, the emphasis should be placed on parish and town councils.

Mr. Truswell: Does my hon. Friend agree that an important part of the democratic deficit is not so much the removal of county council involvement but the fact that communities and individuals do not have the right to challenge strategic plans at that level?

Mr. Drew: If my hon. Friend is referring to third party rights of appeal, I am at one with him. A weakness of the Bill is that the Government have not grasped the nettle and taken the opportunity to introduce a proper framework for third party appeals.

Town councils and, in rural areas, parish councils have a crucial role to play in public participation. Giving them greater capacity will mean that they will have the chance to plan how they want their communities to develop. Responsibility will follow if we are able to give them the necessary powers, and I look forward to doing that with this Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) spoke about third party rights of appeal. I should like such rights to be enshrined in the Bill. In that respect, I disagree with the Government. There would have to be clear checks and balances on the operation of such appeals, but the Labour party embraced the proposal for years in opposition. We supported its inherent fairness and justice, and it is sad that certain people have been able to persuade a Labour Government not to adopt. We should resist that persuasion and do the decent thing. We should see how the planning system could be made fairer by allowing people who feel that they have been treated unfairly by it a right to put across their point of view.

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I very much welcome the fact that repeat applications will not be allowed, and the reduction, from five years to three, in the period for which a planning permission remains valid. I am concerned about how the permitted development rights will operate. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will say something about that. If we are to give local authorities more powers according to those rights, I want to know exactly how they will operate. Let me also say to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe that I am not sure how the business planning zones will work. I am not sure that they are not a gimmick rather than a measure that could make a real difference.

As important as the Bill will be the tremendous funding boost. We all accept that the main problem is a failure to change the mindset of those involved in the planning process owing to underfunding, which may lead to a lack of planning officers or, indeed, stymie people dealing with applications. I hope that using the new funds appropriately will lead to what my hon. Friend described as a step change.

I am still not sure what will emerge from the changes in the section 106 agreements, and I think that in Committee we must tease out ways of improving the situation. I agree with the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) that there are ways in which it could be seen as a form of corruption. We should also think carefully about poverty and social exclusion. I hope that in Committee we can make clear how the less privileged can have better access to the planning process.

8.56 pm

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Let me begin with an apology. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) and I could not hear the opening speeches because we were in the Standing Committee considering the Communications Bill. Not least for that reason, I shall be brief. I shall also try to confine myself to personal observations arising from my involvement in planning, as they are unlikely to duplicate what has already been said and are relevant to one of the main issues.

There is clearly a theoretical argument to be had about the desirability of regional spatial strategies supplanting the county structure plan as a mechanism for securing strategic planning, but in this context I would prefer not to deal with the theory. We can discuss elsewhere the likelihood or otherwise of the establishment of regional assemblies. I think their establishment extremely unlikely in the east of England, certainly, and I therefore believe that the current democratic deficit and lack of accountability in regional planning is likely to persist for a long time. What is more relevant to this Bill, however—as opposed to the Regional Assemblies (Preparation) Bill—is the question of whether regional spatial strategies will deliver, in practice, speedier and more effective plans. I do not think that they will.

During the last few years, I have participated in public examination of RPG6 relating to East Anglia. Last month, I spent three days taking part in a public examination of the Cambridgeshire structure plan, which is pursuant to RPG6. One of the perversities of

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the present situation is demonstrated by what was happening during the four weeks in which I—along with many others—considered the plan. The East of England local government conference, which for our present purposes is the planning body, is moving towards the establishment of RPG14, which it thinks may well be one of the first regional spatial strategies produced under the new legislation. During our consideration, the conference produced a document purporting to be a pre-consultation draft document relating to that regional spatial strategy for the east of England—which was quite separate from the preceding RPG6, although intended to carry forward some of its principles. On the face of it, the consultation draft for the regional spatial strategy was not seeking to cut across the county structure plan, which will set the framework for Cambridgeshire for the next 14 years. It said that the sub-regional strategy for the Cambridge sub-region would be as reflected in RPG6 and as determined in the county structure plan. Even the regional spatial strategy is more or less saying that the county structure plan is the right place for that to happen. Of course, that plan will not be there in the future.

At the same moment, the regional spatial strategy was contemplating scenarios that cut across all that. For example, the local government conference had gone to consultants based in Birmingham—it must have been somewhere outside the region as they did not seem to know much about Cambridgeshire—in order to produce scenarios on how large numbers of new houses could be accommodated in the east of England. One of those scenarios was for a large new settlement on the scale of Milton Keynes. One of the areas of search identified for that was south of Cambridge and in my constituency. People in my constituency, including me, might well conclude that the regional spatial strategy did not understand the nature of what was already happening in terms of a sub-regional strategy for the Cambridge area. At the same time, South Cambridgeshire, which is the district authority responsible for that area, did not even have a representative on the regional planning conference. The distance between those who are affected by this major issue and the body concerned is so enormous as to make it quite unreasonable.

One of the principal arguments behind the proposal for a large new city is the proposition that there should be east-west rail links and that Norwich, Cambridge, Bedford, Milton Keynes and Oxford should all be linked. Fine, let them all be linked, but the Strategic Rail Authority is pretty clear that the line will not travel along that route and will not go anywhere near the area of search. The pieces of the jigsaw are not being linked together. The regional planning body is transparently so divorced from understanding the nature of how these issues interact in the Cambridge sub-region that it is difficult to see how the regional spatial strategy will ever be anything more than a process by which all the strategies—the waste strategy, the transport strategy, the cultural strategy and the economic strategy—are reflected in the document, with the balances, in practice, being struck somewhere else.

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The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) said that this is a dynamic process and that we have to think about how it all works. I agree that it is a dynamic process. Conservative Members are not simply saying that county structure plans are the be-all and end-all because, clearly, there will be sub-regional strategies, such as the one around Cambridge, that ought to include contributions from other local authorities such as Essex, Hertfordshire and even Bedfordshire and Suffolk. All those authorities can be involved. The idea that it will be done by the regional spatial strategy is utterly misleading. It is clear that, in practice, it would be better to work on a reform that is geared to the development of county structure plans in a manner that is able to take account of cross-border issues and to link related strategies. That would be better than trying to work through the regional spatial strategy, the effect of which would be to create a bureaucratic process that would be divorced from reality, subsequent to which sub-regional documents would have to be drawn up that, perhaps on different boundaries, would be akin to county structure plans in the manner in which they tried to integrate the various strategies.

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